Classical CD Reviews: Bernstein Complete Piano Music, “Chaplin’s Smile,” and Parry Piano Trios

By Jonathan Blumhofer

A trio of fine discs: Leonard Bernstein’s music for solo piano, Charlie Chaplin’s songs, and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s trios.

If one genre of Leonard Bernstein’s music made out the best from last year’s celebration his 100th birthday, it was probably the composer’s piano music. No fewer than three complete traversals of this body of work appeared in 2018; at least two more are projected for 2019. The first of the latter (on Piano Classics) features pianist Michelle Tozzetti.

He begins her survey by tackling Bernstein’s 1938 Piano Sonata. It’s an easy piece to dismiss: thematically choppy and structurally disjunct, the Sonata is clearly the work of a young composer. But, with its harmonic structure, motivic figures, and penchant for adopting faddish gestures (in this case, some full-arm clusters), the Sonata also strongly suggests what would mark Bernstein’s mature style.

Tozzetti’s performance is quite good. he gets the spiky first movement to dance and the second comes across with probing weight. His articulations of the music’s rhythms and little figures – like the 32nd-note runs in the second movement — are always clean and Bernstein’s contrapuntal writing is well-voiced.

Equally strong in performance (and a better piece, overall) is Touches, Bernstein’s 1981 set of variations for that year’s Van Cliburn Competition. Tozzetti’s tightly rhythmic performance ably jumps through all of the score’s not-inconsiderable hoops: his realizations of the ever-shifting dynamics, articulations, and gestures passed between the hands are securely managed, and he draws plenty of character from the music, too. Touches’ fifth variation is dreamy and hypnotic, the finale potent.

The remainder of the album (and Bernstein’s keyboard output) are miniatures. Tozzetti plays the four books of Anniversaries with spirit and technical assurance. He has lots of fun (or seems to) with the four Sabras — his take on the jokester, “Yosi,” is particularly whimsical. And his accounts of Bernstein’s Music for the Dance, a set of three short, early pieces are good-humored and jaunty.

In all, then, a strong, welcome addition to put on the shelf next to last year’s installments by Kate Mahan and Andrew Cooperstock.

What couldn’t Charlie Chaplin do? Actor, comedian, icon, he was also, it turned out, a composer with a pretty good ear for catchy tunes (or for imitating them). Chaplin’s Smile, a collection of thirteen of Chaplin’s songs and/or film scores, celebrates this aspect of Chaplin’s craft — just in time, as Fortune would have it, for the great man’s 130th birthday this April.

Headlining the project are violinist Philippe Quint and pianist Marta Aznavoorian for Warner Classics. Certainly, one would be hard-pressed to find two finer advocates for this fare, with its mix of early-20th-century popular song forms, tangos, and jazz. Quint and Aznavoorian are, as one would expect, technically excellent players. But they’ve got a winning feel for Chaplin’s freshly-spirited — but also musically-knowing — style. In a word, they don’t overdo anything.

Thus, you’ve got an album here that’s beautifully arranged, brilliantly played, and nothing short of a joy to listen to (repeatedly). Quint and Aznavoorian make lovely work of songs like “Smile” and “Terry’s Theme” from Limelight while also turning in spunky performances of “Weeping Willows” and “Tango Bitterness,” among others. There’s also a suite from Chaplin’s film City Lights, which ends up sounding a bit like what Sarasate might have written had he been adapting film music in the ‘30s.

All thirteen tracks were arranged by some combination of Quint, Aznavoorian, Charles Coleman, and Leon Gurvitch. Suffice it to say, they’re excellently-done: crafty and wondrously idiomatic, like those great Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin.

On a couple tracks, Quint and Aznavoorian are joined by special guest Joshua Bell. And, honestly, what other violinist could you possibly want to hear playing this fare? The trio — as much as the duo — prove irresistibly charismatic. In fact, those last adjectives simply apply to the whole album: it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s reputation may rest on his choral music — there’s a lot of it, much quite fine — but he was also a prolific composer of instrumental music. The problem with much of it, to post-World War 1 ears, at least, is its strong debt to Germanic models, particularly Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms.

But those qualities aren’t always detrimental, as the Leonore Piano Trio’s (LPT) new Hyperion recording of Parry’s E-minor and G-major Piano Trios (plus the violin-and-piano Partita in D minor) remind.

At his best, Parry forced his formal models to serve his lyrical voice. You hear that quite powerfully in the lush, beautiful 1877 E-minor Piano Trio no. 1. Its first movement is a standard sonata form, but one that really manages to soar, especially its big opening theme. The central movements – a diaphanous scherzo and potent slow movement – provide substantial expressive contrasts and set up the sternly playful finale.

In the G-major Trio no. 3 from 1889, Parry’s writing is likewise fluent and engaging. Its first movement channels Brahms in both its phrasings and instrumental gestures. The mysterious second-movement capriccio and fervent, third-movement Lento offer more of the German master’s shadow, though, to his credit, Parry’s writing is consistently fresh, melodically, and never cloys. And the finale offers a strong sense of direction and excitement over its closing pages.

The Partita in D minor is the disc’s earliest score, written in 1872-73. It traffics in a curious blend of Baroque gestures (dotted rhythms, sequential passagework) and mid-Romantic textures. The result is a curiosity, more than anything else, though the “Courante” is wildly vigorous, the “Sarabande” warmly tragic, and the concluding “Passepied en rondo” thoroughly involving.

Violinist Benjamin Nabarro and pianist Tim Horton make the most of the Partita, ably conveying its dancing energy and its taut construction. Joined by cellist Gemma Rosefield, they make wonderfully vibrant work of both Piano Trios, as well.

At its worst, Parry’s music can come over as stuffy and unnecessarily formal. The LPT, with their technically-flawless playing, clear sympathy for Parry’s writing, and terrifically-engineered recording, ensure that these three pieces sound as vigorous as they should. Indeed, this is a disc that’ll leave you wondering why these trios, especially, aren’t more widely played or known. They should be.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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